YEARS AGO I WROTE some children's booklets; after reading The Spirit of 1787 , I looked back at them to see if they were as terrible as I remember, and they are. Now I think I know why. Asked to write for children, many people try to make their copy more vivid and colorful. For Lomask, that means stuffing sentences with "action words" -- four participles, for instance: "The news springing from the hurrring horseman's throat had reached the waterfront at dusk aboard a sailing vessel flying the flag of France." Descriptions veer toward Gothic romance: "His lean face tightened as he spoke." Every face gets described, largely in terms of length or shortness of nose, and adjectives are sprinkled generously if irrelevantly around -- both Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney sharing the unlikely designation "chipper."
Children have very good imaginations. We don't have to supply them with that. But they need things for the imagination to work on. The best fairy tales do not say there was a huge-scary-monstrous giant -- just that there was a giant. Only the facts, ma'am. Writing for childrend should not be flowery but bare -- how else do the fairy tales get through a fairly complicated plot in such short space? That is why writing for children is such a difficult task -- one must first clarify one's own ideas. Otherwise, as in this book, one ends up with a rain of adjectives and impressions hard even for adults to struggle through.
It is not impossible to state the causes of conflict between England and America. It is just damned difficult. Lomask, instead, settles for the old textbook generalization that hatred of monarchy fueled the Revolution. But the Americans were sophisticated enough to know that George III was not their problem, nor even the "ministry." By the time the real break came, they were attacking the most admired and "up-to-date" political establishment in the world, the British Constitution itself -- a far more exciting project.
Since Lomask casts the initial struggle as one against monarchy, he treats the Constitution as a triumph over domestic monarchizers. But Richard B. Morris has shown that monarchy ceased to be a live option long before the Philadelphia convention -- monarchy was never th real issue. Lonmask's second guiding theme is also dated -- the idea that there were two revolutions going on, of the colonial leaders against England and of the colonial people against those local leaders. That progressive-era formulation was more a matter of hope than of evidence, and sufficient evidence never was forthcoming.
Trickle-down theory does not work in economics; but Frances FitzGerald has shown that it applies to what our children read about our history. They get yesterday's warmed-over scholarship. Lomask, for instance, repeatrs the old notion that James Madison set up the Annapolis convention, using John Tyler as his cat's-paw. The late Julian Boyd destroyed that idea in 1954. Other errors abound. Edmund Randolph was not Governor of Virginia during the ratification debates in Richmond. Linda Grant De Pauw successfully challenged in 1966 the claim that George Clinton wrote the "Cato Letters." The wrong reason is given for Washington's reluctance to attend the Constitutional Convention (he had told the Society of the Cincinnati that he could not be in Philadelphia that summer because of illness, not, as Lomask writes, because he had earlier promised "he was retiring from public life forever").
Lomask tries to tell the whole story of the Revolution from 1776, devoting half his book to events preceding the Constitutional Convention. It is too much territory to cover; in this work on the Constitution, The Federalist gets only one sentence. The approaching bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention deserves better books than this, both for children and adults. The year 1787 is a date as important to our history as 1776. And writing for children is as trying a discipline, at least, as writing for adults.